National Geographic : 1989 Jul
174 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, JULY 1989 Above and below the bananabelt, there was only delightful scandal for Parisaudiences when JosephineBaker took over the stage. Escapingan East St. Louis, Illinois,ghetto, she joinedLa Revue Negre, a troupe of black American entertainerswho made their Parisdebut in 1926. The city went wild over hersizzling Charleston danced with bottom-slappingantics and dubbed her "La Baker." She strolled the Champs-Elyseeswith a diamond-collaredpet leop ard,adding herown piquancy to that "moveable feast," Paris. as men did; emancipation went with beach pajamas and cosmetics. But a moveable feast gathers no moss. Americans talked most ly to one another. They drank at the Closerie-des-Lilas but did not know that Marshal Ney's statue in front of the caf6 stood on the place where the marshal had been executed for following Napoleon in 1815. They drank at the Boeuf sur le Toit but did not know the ballet for which it had been named (the ballet was situated in a bar). They admired Coco Cha nel, the general of haute couture, dressed all in black and surround ed by Stravinsky, Picasso, Coc teau, Diaghilev-but did not know enough French to com municate. They patronized declining music halls and caf6 concerts because they found them exotic, while French con temporaries welcomed American jazz, American bars, American pancakes at Le Quick Lunch, where painters such as Pascin and Kisling liked to eat. The French ignored Heming way and Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. They applauded Josephine Baker's "primitive" exotic dancing in La Revue Negre. It was a long step from East St. Louis to Paris, an even longer one from goofy pickaninny roles through junglyfemmefatale in a banana skirt, and not much else, to becoming a national idol by the Seine. But, in Paris, wom en like Baker (or Colette or Cha nel) could, with luck and talent and hard work, escape from con vention and be themselves. It was harder, somehow, for men to do this. The image of Bohemia (re inforced in 1896 by Puccini's La Boheme) was an encourage ment to play at art rather than work at it. HENCE, the age of An American in Paris, when so many hearts were young and gay and so many heads hung over, was less an age of learning from Paris than one of emancipation in Par is. Because, as they compared the provincialism they had fled with the provincialism that dazzled them in Paris, a lot of these ex patriates grew up, innocence waned. "The burden of inferior ity," recorded the critic Malcolm Cowley, "leaked away." They were ready to go home, be them selves, do their work. Which was just as well, because in 1929 the moveable feast ended, and those Americans who had not gone home before went home after the stock market's black Friday. It had been, reflected Cowley look ing back on it, "an easy, quick, adventurous age, good to be young in." A belle epoque for those who had not known La Belle Epoque.